Sunday, June 19, 2005

The Public Education Resolution: Southern Baptists and Cultural Engagement

As Russ Moore has already so eloquently stated, gatherings of the Southern Baptist Convention over the past 10 years could be called many things, but "boring" is not one of them, and this year, it seems the controversy has begun before the gavel even hits the podium.

At the center of everyone's attention is a proposed resolution which, if allowed a vote on the floor and passed, would urge all Christian parents to pull their children out of the nation's public school system and either home school, or place them in private school. But while the philosophical underpinnings of this effort are commendable, it is the prescriptive aspects of this resolution that are so troubling. In short, it isn't the descriptive or "whereas" statements in the proposed resolution that are problematic, but rather the prescriptive or "therefore" statements that should make Southern Baptists think twice before raising a ballot in favor.

On the one hand, leaders who put together the latest version of the proposed resolution rightly point out serious problems with, as they describe it, "government school systems." Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, observes that the resolution has much more support than in years past, primarily because "every week, new reports of atrocities in the public schools appear. Radical sex education programs, offensive curricula and class materials, school-based health clinics, and ideologies hostile to Christian truth and parental authority abound." Mohler is fair in his assessment of the situation, admitting that in "some school systems, the majority of teachers, administrators, and students share an outlook that is at least friendly and repsectful toward Christianity and conservative moral values." However, he also reports that in other areas, more notably in the nations cities "the situation is markedly different. In many metropolitan school districts, the schools have truly become engines for the indoctrination of the young . . . .Unless something revolutionary reserses these trends, this is the shape of the future."

This assessment of public school education is an accurate one, especially in places like Montgomery County MD, just minutes from my home. This county's administrators pushed hard for a radical sex education agenda that would be mandatory on all students, without the possibility of parents having their child exempted from such insane classroom practice as learning how to place a condom on a cucumber. In addition, the most radical segments of the homosexual lobby have tried for years to push their own indoctrinations into the minds of young children, and have seen the public school system as the primary conduit for transporting their propaganda to the youngest and most vunerable among us.

So in a sense, there is a serious situation regarding public education in many arenas. John Dewey's proposal was to make America's public schools the home base for bringing individuals to capitulate to the majority worldview accepted by the culture of their day, and this goal has almost been realized. Subsequently, there is a very real chance that our public schools could be lost. Our SBC leaders are right; much is wrong with public education in America. The question that remains is whether encouraging parents to "jump ship" is the answer.

My initial answer to this question is "no." Primarily, I object to the resolution because I believe it stands in opposition to the Great Commission, Great Commandment, and Jesus' ideal of a savoring, illuminating body of His followers given in Matthew 5:13-16. Although I don't believe it is their intention, some of our leaders are unwittingly giving in to an "isolationist" approach of how to engage these issues. Though he did not explicity state whether he would personally support the proposed resolution, even Mohler suggested that this year "is the time for responsible Southern Baptists to develop an exit strategy from the public schools."

Exit strategy? I love Al Mohler. As a two-time allumnus of the seminary he runs, I thank God for his influence, and the way in which he courageously steered my alma mater back to its Scriptural foundations. I consider him a brilliant theologian, and our denomination's most eloquent spokesman. He is one of my more distant mentors, and I rely on his analysis of current issues often when time does not permit me to engage certain subjects as fully as I would prefer. Nevertheless, "exit strategy" makes it sound as though we are declaring our battle lost, and are simply resigned to walk away. But while such a strategy might make my children and me feel more secure, what would it do to those who remain? Here, I offer four principles as to why Southern Baptists should vote this resolution down:

1. False dichotomy between "secular" and "sacred" education. The solution suggested by the resolution is that parents pull their children out of public schools and either enroll them in Christian institutions, or teach them at home. Behind this is the belief that somehow, we will escape the "evils" of educational philosophy and simply give our students the Bible. This understanding is fundamentally flawed. Evil can take many forms. The more obvious ones before us are the pushing of a "secuarlist" agenda that includes the acceptance and affirmation of perverted lifestyles. But "Christian" institutions can have their own vices. While in elementary school on the campus of Bob Jones University in Greenville, SC, my wife, who grew up in the Pentecostal tradition, was told that she was going to hell because she hadn't been baptized in a Baptist church. She was told that wearing pants or shorts was sinful. In short, slapping a "Christian" label on an institution doesn't cure all that ills education. And in some cases, matters could be worse. Although there are many fine Christian schools out there, there are also many that exist simply to make huge sums of money for the churches that sponsor them, while the students are forced to endure a "less than stellar" academic environment that will in no way prepare them for the real world.
Similarly, it must be admitted that even Christian schools and churches are heavily influenced by the same Educational Psychology that permeates the public school arena, and this isn't a bad thing. Even our modern "age-graded" approach to Sunday School, if traced back, can be credited in part to developmentalists such as Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, and yes, even John Dewey. The fact that none of these men were followers of Jesus doesn't change the fact that God's general revelation was discovered in their work. The bottom line is this: The division between "Christian" and "secular" is largely an artificial one, and we do ourselves no service when we think that changing a label neccesarily protects us or our children from all harm.

2. The Absence of a Significant Christian Presence from Public Education will result in its Death. One commentator freely admitted that the runaway secularism present in many urban centers of America had no potency in more suburban and rural areas where parents are still involved to a large degree in their child's education. One has to wonder why the evil is stronger in the cities. Could it be because the church by and large abandoned the cities years ago? I think such things should be considered prior to Wednesday's vote. If similar action is taken in rural areas, and the presence of Christ's church is largely removed from the arena of public education as a result, what then will become of our schools, and subsequently, our culture? Let us not forget that the school systems belong first and foremost to the people, and I believe that instead of walking away, we should, slowly but surely, begin to take it back!
In addition, how will pulling out serve to support the many fine Christian teachers, principals, administrators and school board members who are serving on the "front lines" of shaping young minds? If we really want to support Christian teachers in the public schools, as the proposed resolution suggests, that support will come primarily from our personal involvement in the process, not our retreat. I know many godly teachers who are trying to make a difference. My younger brother is one of them. Let's not leave them "hanging on a limb" by making our absence more conspicuous than it already is.

3. The Scriptures Declare that the Religious Education of Children is Primarily the Responsibility of Parents. I love my local church, and though I preach in other areas almost every Sunday, I do so with confidence that my wife and children are receiving the godly instruction they need from our pastor and Sunday School teachers. Nevertheless, I also understand that my family's walk with Christ and development in the faith is something for which God will hold me personally responsible. We are blessed to live in an area that boasts the top public schools in the nation, so I have no doubt my children will be able to read, write, think and function. I am also certain that at some point I will have to correct my children's teachers concerning worldview issues, and that my sons will see the various viewpoints that exist in our culture and be able to clearly understand why a God-centered worldview is superior to all others. Throughout such discussions, my children will see (I hope) an example of gentle confrontation, love for those who believe differently than myself, and the way of influencing others in Jesus' name. Deuteronomy 6:4-9 is clear that giving our children a strong Biblical worldview is a responsibility that belongs to parents first, with the church and others simply supplementing that effort. What this means is that if we do our job as parents, our children will develop spiritually, wherever we enroll them!

4. The Call of the Great Commission is to Engage and Transform Culture. At this point, I probably need to state that I have several friends who feel it neccesary to have their children in private schools, and I respect their decision as parents. Ultimately, I believe it is up to the parent to decide whether their child can handle the pressures that sometimes come with the public school environment, and I respect, and intend in no way to belittle the strong convictions that motivate some to either send their children to Christian schools, or teach their children at home.
Nevertheless, this resolution, if passed, would seem to subtely suggest that one is a less than exemplary parent if one leaves his or her children in the public school system. The fact is, if we are going to be obedient to God's call to reach the world, the world will need to be able to "taste the salt" and "see the light." Yes, there are serious problems with public education today. But the non-negotiable demands of our King should compel us to run toward those problems, not away from them!

My friend Rob Stephens is a great example of this kind of passion. Rob serves as the Youth Pastor at the church where my wife and I are members. He coaches track and wrestling at the local high school, and has made huge "in-roads" with students as well as faculty. It is my hope to help him as he starts a church on the campus of that high school that will first reach the students, and then, eventually, their parents. Now, what would it say to the culture if we pulled our children out of the very system where the people we are attempting to reach are found? In short, an "exit strategy" in our context would be counterproductive in our efforts at mission.

Therefore, when I read those words: "Exit Strategy," I couldn't help but ask myself a question that I hope each reader will ask of himself or herself? Wouldn't it be better if "responsible" Southern Baptists developed an "invasion" strategy? What if, instead of resolving to admit defeat at the hands of the secularists, we resolved to transform public education from within? Imagine just 10 short years from now what kind of difference could be made should followers of Christ bring their children, as well as their discernment, time, dedication, and service, back into the public schools to cooperate with born-again teachers, administrators, and board members? I have no clue what the end result would be, but I would bet the farm on it looking much better than the outcome that is most assuredly to come should Southern Baptists in masse adopt the proposed resolution, and then put it into practice.

Our calling is to influence, to transform, to disciple, to relate, and to win the world! The late Abraham Kuyper once said "there is not one square inch of creation over which Christ who is sovereign does not cry out "MINE!" The arena of public education is no different. And if we are to be obedient to our Lord, retreat is not the answer. Instead, we should by our actions and witness, point to ALL areas of our culture, including public education, and cry with a loud voice, "HIS!" Jesus is worthy of no less!

2 comments:

Howie Luvzus said...

Great stuff! I live across the street from a public school. (My kids do go to public school, but they are "magnet schools" and thus not the average public school.) What if every Christian in the Baptist church one mile away, and the one three miles away, and the Methodist church 1/2 mile away, and the Presbyterian three blocks away decided to send their kids to the school across the street from me and become very active in the parent organizations? What if they prayed for the kids by name every day?

Could that make an impact? What if the non-Christian parents noticed that we loved them and sought to minister to them, wouldn't that make a difference? I think it would be huge!

Unfortunately, we don't care (don't mean to sound too judgmental) about the kids in that school. We just want to protect our kids. Sad. Thanks again for the post.

Ryan D. said...

Joel,

I went to an Independent Baptist school up through the fourth grade. I receive part of my undergraduate education from a fundamentalist school deeply involved with Christian and home schooling.

I do not believe that (most) Christian schools turn out a superior product. Home schools do, but let's be honest- we cannot expect all Southern Baptists to be able to home school their kids. Christian schools will play a big part of any future where Southern Baptists are discouraged to send their kids to public schools.

Let me be blunt: Christian schools produce large numbers of annoying, shallow yet elitist "Christians" that are incapable of living in the world, let alone evangeling it. We will come to regret the day we pulled our kids out of public schools en masse.

I'm sure someone will come along and say I'm wrong, but Ryan knows Christian schools.